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Interview: Tehillah Alphonso on her Grammy Nomination, working with Olivia Rodrigo, and more!

Off to a very impressive start, Tehillah is the industry's next biggest thing!

Interview: Tehillah Alphonso on her Grammy Nomination, working with Olivia Rodrigo, and more!

This month, the incredibly talented Tehillah Alphonso earned her first Grammy nomination in the category, "Best Arrangement, Instruments, and Vocals" for her arrangement of the song, "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke. From having her vocals featured in Space Jam 2 and Disney's Encanto to sharing the stage with artists such as Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, she is truly a force to be reckoned with! Graduating Summa Cum Laude from the Thornton School of Music at USC in 2020, Tehillah has had an impressive start to her career. BroadwayWorld Vancouver had the pleasure of talking with Tehillah about her Grammy nomination, past projects, and future aspirations. Read the full interview below!

First of all congrats on the Grammy Nomination! You must be so incredibly excited! This year, you were the only woman, person of colour, and youngest person to be nominated for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals for "A Change is Gonna Come." How does it feel to be nominated for a Grammy and how did you get involved with arranging the song?

Tehillah: It is certainly an honour! I feel like such a baby in the music industry having graduated college 2 years ago. My life has accelerated so much since then. I'm constantly filled with gratitude that I'm able to make music for a living and the Grammy nomination is just crazy!

The song, " A Change Is Gonna Come" was originally arranged for the National Children's Chorus (NCC) before the vocal ensemble, Tonality, got a hold of it. It was arranged before the presidential election and in between the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protest back in 2020, which was a very emotionally heated and tumultuous time. I think this song is one that comes about when something tragic or horrible happens in the United States. Typically this song represents standing in solidarity with the Black community. As a Black woman in America, I knew that when I was asked to arrange it, I didn't want to do just another cutesy cover of the song. My goal was to make the arrangement memorable and unique while keeping the integrity of the original song. When I originally arranged it for the NCC, they thought it was too hard for the kids, so I had to simplify it. Alex Blake (conductor of Tonality), who was also involved with the NCC, reached out and asked if Tonality could use the full, un-simplified, complicated arrangement. I sing for Tonality as well and was like "absolutely!" That's how it got into Tonality's hands which was pretty early into the pandemic (Oct-Nov 2020). Everything for the song was recorded at home and an editor put the final video together. It was really special all around! Tonality is a social justice choir and they sing about every social justice issue under the sun. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was a part of their "America Will Be" album. That album addressed issues that have been widely discussed over the last few years in America such police brutality, racism, segregation, homelessness, and immigration.

To follow, how long does the whole process of arranging a song take?

Tehillah: It varies! It depends on the song, number of voices, number of instruments, and if I'm creatively inspired by what I'm doing. Sometimes I can get something done in a few hours and send it off! "A Change Is Gonna Come" was probably the longest I've spent on an arrangement. For that project, I had roughly a month turnaround time and within that month it took me about 2 weeks of working on it and grinding it out. I was really nitpicky with it partially because I usually arrange for voices and it's been a while since I've arranged for piano and strings. Part of it was making sure that I had all the technical things right for those instruments and that things were written in a way that were easy to understand. The big part was that it was such a tumultuous and politically heated time that I felt that I really needed to get it right. I felt a lot of weight on my shoulders for that arrangement, so I spent many hours nitpicking and tweaking until I could not change any more. I sent it to some of my mentors to get some feedback on things that I could change or make better, which I don't do very often. Despite this project taking about 2 weeks, on average, it usually takes a few days to a week for me to arrange a piece. Furthermore, it's also dependent on my productivity or creative outlook at the time as well. I need to leave time between arrangements to allow me to creatively recharge. I overestimate myself a lot about how much I can handle creatively. Whenever I am itching to get something done, I can get it done relatively quickly. I never know how long exactly until I sit down at my computer or keyboard and start working.

Growing up, you were introduced to music at an early age and your interest in it grew as you got older. Who were your musical inspirations growing up and what made you want to dive into the technical side of the music industry?

Tehillah: My inspirations growing up were definitely different than my inspirations now. Growing up in Nebraska (where music was not seen as a career), the closest I got to seeing musicians was on TV or at a concert. Back then, I looked up to the Disney channel and Nickelodeon stars. That was the music I grew up with because my parents were from Nigeria and I didn't have the classics playing in my house all the time. My taste was very dependent on what everyone around me was listening to at the time. My palette definitely changed when I got to school, leading to my musical vocabulary completely expanding. I think now when it comes to my writing and arranging, I have a broader list of what I am inspired by. I listen to a lot of music from the 70s and 80s from artists such as Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. This era of artists influenced and showed me how counterpoint worked. I also gained greater knowledge about how to write for instruments and how they communicate with each other and with an audience. As for more current artists, Allen Stone, Eryn Allen Kane, Lianne La Havas, YEBBA, and Tori Kelly really inspire my writing!

As a graduate of the Thornton School of Music at USC, how was the transition from school to the music industry? You have been a part of a lot of very impressive projects including having your vocals featured in Brooklyn Nine Nine, Space Jam 2, Encanto, etc. How were you able to get involved with such awesome projects?

Tehillah: I graduated into the pandemic in 2020 right after the entire world shut down, so it was a terrifying transition. Once school was done, I was back home in Nebraska sitting on my parent's couch watching my live stream graduation ceremony. I was home for 2-3 months waiting for what to do after that. The only reason why I came back to LA was because my lease was about to expire and I needed to move all of my stuff out. Although it was a slow turn around for me, it was quicker than most. I'm not one who can sit still for very long and I don't do well having a ton of free time. It was hard waiting for work to come back up and for opportunities to present themselves again.

To back track again, before I graduated, things were starting and momentum was building a little bit. I had just joined the SAG-AFTRA union and had been on a few TV shows and film scores both with my acapella group and on my own. In the spring, I had so many plans such as performing at Coachella with an artist and travelling to Indonesia with them after. Everything was perfectly lined up and then the pandemic hit. As a new artist, I was set back and had to rebuild again. When I moved back to LA and was waiting for things to start back up, my online teaching job was the only consistent thing I had going on. I decided that instead of sitting around and waiting, I would turn to social media. I decided to kill 2 birds with one stone by putting out videos, covers, and arrangements out while keeping my social media up to date. It kept my arranging and writing chops up while showing people what I was capable of. The social media stuff was the turning point for me. Up to that point I had been arranging for some college and semi professional groups, but it was the social media stuff that caught the eye of some important people. One video that I uploaded in November 2020 of a cover of Jacob Collier's song, "It Don't Matter," got a lot more attraction than I expected. It wasn't a ton compared to what "viral" means, but it was a lot for me!

I had gotten a few jobs after posting that cover with one being the Olivia Rodrigo video that I got to be a part of. One of the videos I posted got into the hands of her music director at the time. That was crazy! It was definitely a slow transition, but once traction started to build up, it was an exponential build up. I'm really thankful because every single project that I've been a part of so far has allowed me to meet new people. With these projects, I've made sure to put people first and show them that not only am I good at what I'm doing, but that I'm also a good person. That's what I try to focus on. I am confident that my talent will be there and that I'll be able to deliver what I am asked to do, but at the end of the day I want to make sure that I am putting people first before career things. I love people and getting to learn about them at these different gigs. It's hard to describe the clear-cut way on how I got to where I am today and I really didn't have a step-by-step plan, but I like to say I got to where I am by being authentic and genuine. I always put people first before career things!

What is your favorite project that you've worked on?

Tehillah: I'm tied for 2! Up there is definitely the Olivia Rodrigo video! All the circumstances surrounding that project was crazy. When the music director reached out, he didn't tell me who the artist was or what the project was for. He was just like, "hey I have this artist that needs backup singers, it pays this much and it's these days, are you free?" I almost said no to it, but ended up saying yes and then 3 days later, he told me that I was confirmed and slipped in that the artist was Olivia Rodrigo! I think that this was one of the first sessions that I've been a part of that didn't feel like work. Once I learned the music, getting to hang out with everyone that was a part of the project was amazing. I knew one of the other singers from USC and the others I knew through mutual friends. We had really long rehearsal days and between every run through, we were always able to have a good time. Singing with each other was just a bonus at that point! Just because of the circumstances surrounding the project in terms of how I got it and the people involved, it didn't feel like work, which was the best! Those are the best sessions when you arrive and leave feeling filled and charged. I remember thinking, "this is exactly what I want to do with my career!" I felt really rejuvenated after this gig! In addition, Olivia was lovely! She's so wonderful and so talented. Every single run through that she did was so good!

Furthermore, in late 2020, I played Nala in a live to film adaptation of Lion King in Taiwan. What was perfect about it was that I didn't have to do any acting or theatre things! I just had to sing! I can't act to save my life and I was not a theatre kid growing up. I've always wanted to be a Disney princess and that was probably the closest I'll probably ever get to it. That specific gig was my first time out of the country by myself in a long time. It was also my first time out of the country doing music and something for my own name for a bigger project. It was also the first in-person gig and real performance that I've done since the pandemic had started! Everyday I would leave rehearsal just crying because I was so grateful and happy to be there. Getting to sing the music I grew up listening to and getting to perform for sold out audiences every single night was really special. Lebo M (the man who sings the opening number in Circle of Life) was there (my childhood hero) and I got to sing with him every night, which made me so emotional. This was another one of those moments where I left feeling so recharged and it reminded me that I was on the right path doing what I was set out to do!

What sorts of projects do you hope to get involved with in the future?

Tehillah: I would love to go on tour with a major artist at some point (either as a background vocalist or keyboardist). Later down the line when I've established more career things, I would love to take on a vocal contractor role and be the one to hire other singers for different projects. I don't know if I see myself singing forever, but I love being in charge and in control of things. Also, I believe that there are so many deserving singers in LA (and the world) that aren't getting opportunities because they don't know the right people or there's always a limited number of people needed. I'm still very new myself and I'm very grateful for every project that I've been a part of. I know being a full time singer and arranger not even 2 years out of school is a huge feat and I know it's not something to take lightly. I'm very grateful for my path and how I got to where I am, but I want to be able to invite other people into these opportunities with me one day.

What advice would you give to people of colour (POC) or women who are looking to break into both the music industry and/or the technical side of music?

Tehillah: Just do it! Don't let the lack of materials or accessibility be the thing that stops you from being successful. Growing up in Nebraska, there weren't many Black people and I never saw myself represented in media. There weren't many Black and/or female arrangers as well as female singers who weren't gospel singers. The people that looked like me on screen where always stereotyped and I always thought I was doing something wrong because I wasn't a certain type of singer or musician. I've never been one to let that stop me though. Instead, I wanted to become that representation for others. I didn't let any gatekeeping stop me from doing what I loved doing. Whatever you're passionate about, just go at it at 150% and know that regardless of how successful or unsuccessful you are, if you are driven, there are going to be so many doors that will open. There's going to be some woman or POC out there seeing you crushing it and they will want to know how you did it! Once you get into important rooms, you can open the door for other people!

Photo Credit: Tehillah Alphonso, 2022.

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